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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oil or Birds

Air Date: Week of

The wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are among the most important in the Arctic and attract millions of migratory birds. (Photo: Steve Zack/Wildlife Conservation Society)

The Bureau of Land Management hopes to lease the last untouched part of Alaska’s North Slope to oil and gas drilling companies. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, about Teshekpuk Lake, which is a critical nesting and mating ground for migratory birds and other species, and could soon be developed.


GELLERMAN: Alaska is also where you’ll find Teshekpuk Lake. It’s on the North Slope 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, and it’s famous for two things: One is oil; the other: birds. It’s got a lot of both. Teshekpuk Lake lies in the National Petroleum Reserve –where it’s estimated there are two billion barrels of oil buried beneath the freshwater lake and marshy wetlands. It’s enough oil to fuel the U.S. economy for three months. As for birds—according to one expert—"it’s got a million of ‘em." In the spring, when the frozen Arctic wetlands begin to thaw, things really heat up as migratory waterfowl turn Teshekpuk Lake into party central. So far, the area is protected and the petroleum off-limits to drilling, but the Bush administration wants to lease the lake to oil companies.

The Bureau of Land Management—under federal court order—recently issued a report on drilling in the area and the agency is now accepting public comments. Stan Senner, executive director for Audubon Alaska in Anchorage, has visited Teshekpuk Lake many times.

Teshekpuk Lake is in the northeastern part of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
(Photo: Gary Braasch/Audubon Alaska)

SENNER: It’s the center of enormous activity. And if you are on the ground there in mid to late June you have all of these birds arriving from literally all around the world and they are there for one purpose and that is to find a mate and nest and produce young and then they are out of there again before things freeze up.

As many as thirty percent of the small geese known as Brant in the Pacific flyway gather near Teshekpuk Lake in summer to molt. While molting the birds are flightless and easily disturbed. (Photo: Tim Bowman/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

So there’s an enormous level of activity—geese in the air, water foul in the air, song birds singing primarily in flight because there are no trees for them to sit on top of to do their singing so they’re flying up in the air and then fluttering- we call it skylarking- down to the ground giving their songs all the way. The pace is tremendous and there is no night and day. It’s 24 hours of sunlight so the activity goes on around the clock.

GELLERMAN: Some people are going to think, you know—there’s oil, there’s gas there and there’s birds. I’m getting my oil from the Middle East and Iraq and it’s troubled and people are dying there. You know on balance—I need my oil. And well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Okay, so we lose the birds.

The King Eider nests in high densities near Teshekpuk Lake, and is an important subsistence food for Alaska Natives on the North Slope.
(Photo: Steve Zack/Wildlife Conservation Society)

SENNER: Certainly people make that argument and what I would point out is that we can do both within the National Petroleum Reserve. This is an area of 23 million acres, bigger than the state of South Carolina. Eighty-seven percent of it is already open for leasing. A million and a half acres are under lease. There is active—not only exploration—but development, which will lead to production from those areas already under lease. And I’m not even addressing the rest of the petroleum reserve which also has significant leasing. So we have an opportunity in this area to balance the need for energy and access to new oil and gas supplies with the opportunity to protect some areas that are especially important for wildlife.

GELLERMAN: Have you ever seen bird behavior changed around the developments on the North Slope?

The wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake are among the most important in the Arctic and attract millions of migratory birds. (Steve Zack/Wildlife Conservation Society)

SENNER: Um, yes. We have observed a number of things about birds in relation to oil and gas activity. One of them is that the infrastructure associated with oil and gas activity and the human activity around there attracts predators. And in turn that has a direct effect on the nesting populations of birds that use those same areas. So right now you have an area north of Teshekpuk Lake that has relatively low densities of predators. You put an oil field infrastructure in there and landfills and trash and everything else that goes with all the human activity—suddenly you have an area where predators are concentrated to the detriment of the nesting bird populations. That would be one example of the kinds of impacts we see. There are others.

Red Phalarope nests and young are vulnerable to predation by gulls, ravens, foxes and grizzlies attracted to oilfields. (Steve Zack/Wildlife Conservation Society)

GELLERMAN: Well, if they didn’t go to Teshekpuk Lake or couldn’t go to Teshekpuk Lake, where else would they go?

SENNER: Well, what we usually see is when birds are displaced out of a prime nesting area it ultimately results in a smaller population and so this idea- that if they’re pushed out of one place and that they have the chance to go somewhere else- doesn’t really hold water. The geese for example, that use the area north of the lake for their annual molt, which is to replace their feathers, they’ve been coming there for many many hundreds or thousands of years. If they’re not able to go there they just may not be returning at all in the future.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Senner, thank you very much.

SENNER: You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here.



National Audubon Society: Alaska

Bureau of Land Management: Alaska Seeks Public Comments for Draft Supplemental Plan for Northeast NPR-A


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